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Traveler's Diary

A Lake Built by a Dam

July 26, 1987|HORACE SUTTON | Sutton is a New York City syndicated travel columnist

BOULDER CITY, Nev. — If you are weary of seeing three lemons come up on the slot machines in Las Vegas, tired of having the dealer beat you at blackjack or frustrated at watching the black come up on the roulette table when you've bet the red, then you can go jump in the lake. Or hire a houseboat and float on it.

All this can be done on Lake Mead, the enormous federal playland that was formed when giant Hoover Dam was stretched across Black Canyon to harness the Colorado River at a site 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

To get the proper perspective, I saw the dam two ways--by helicopter and car.

The helicopter took off from a pad in Las Vegas, flew over the top of the huge mass of concrete, then circled north over Lake Mead, continuing over Boathouse Cove and the desert floor known as the Bowl of Fire, before turning back to Las Vegas at Valley of Fire State Park.

Anyone interested in helicopter tours over Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and the surrounding area can call Aire Adventure Helicopters, (702) 871-9129, and make arrangements. Aire Adventure also has a tour over the Grand Canyon.

In any case, I was back the next day by car to become one of the 700,000 visitors a year who pay a dollar to be toured through this marvelous mechanism that harnesses what had been a raging river, provides electrical current to an assortment of states and serves to irrigate 1 million acres of rich land in the United States and 500,000 acres in Mexico.

Federal Playground

More than that, it has provided water for domestic, municipal and industrial use, and created a playground called Lake Mead National Recreational Area under the Department of the Interior.

Large-mouth bass, bluegill, striped bass, crappie and catfish inhabit the depths. And there is no closed season. Boats can tie up at seven marinas, and there are 30 bays for launching craft. Swimming, boating, fishing and water skiing bring 6 million visitors a year.

About 150 houseboats are available for hire at Lake Mead, with prices from $550 to $1,000 a week. Most are air-conditioned and sleep from six to 12 people.

Seven Crown Resorts is one of the firms that rent out houseboats on Lake Mead. For information, call (213) 694-8537. Another is Forever Resorts, which can be reached at (702) 293-1904.

There was a day when the Colorado River was considered a dangerous force. For millions of years it had been gnawing its way on a 1,400-mile run from the Rockies to the Gulf of California. On its way it cut gorges and chasms, none more impressive than the Grand Canyon, which stretches for 277 miles and ranges from 18 feet wide to 600 feet wide, and a mile deep.

The American Sahara

Beyond the Canyon the Colorado winds through desert plains, where, except for a thunderstorm now and then, the sun shines all the time, running the thermometer to a bubbling 125 degrees. This area has been called the American Sahara.

Flying in a helicopter beyond the shores of Lake Mead, one glimpses the stretches of dry earth, brown and unforgiving.

The first white men to see this Southwestern patch of parched America were conquistadors and missionaries who found that people could live there--hardy Indians such as the Maricopas, Yumas and a tribe called Cocopahs.

As the Spanish were to learn, even earlier inhabitants built three- and four-story dwellings, apartment houses of an earlier time. The inhabitants survived by diverting the water into canals to irrigate fields of beans, squash, melons and corn.

Much later, when New Mexico, Arizona and California had been added to the United States, the War Department sent a Lt. Ives to visit and report.

"The region last explored is, of course, valueless . . . After entering it, there is nothing to do but leave . . . Ours was the first party of whites to visit this profitless locality," he wrote.

A disastrous flood in 1905 raged into the Imperial Valley for more than a year and finally awakened Washington to the need to act.

Began in 1931

In 1922, the waters were divided equally into the seven states that would be affected. Construction of the dam began in 1931, when former President Herbert Hoover was secretary of commerce. It was dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who succeeded Hoover as President.

Roosevelt preferred the name Boulder Dam, but the original name was restored by Congress in 1947.

Some facts: When full, Lake Mead holds enough water to cover all of Pennsylvania to a depth of one foot. The 5,000 workers who built the dam lived in Boulder City, seven miles from the site. With only 6,000 residents in 1934, it became the third-largest city in Nevada.

In two years the 5,000 men who worked on the dam built a structure bigger than Egypt's largest Pyramid which, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, had taken 100,000 men 20 years to build. Hoover Dam is as high as a 60-story skyscraper and as thick as two ordinary residential blocks.

Today, Boulder City counts about 12,000 residents and has its own hospital and a nine-hole golf course. As for Hoover Dam, it hit a bigger jackpot for the entire Southwest than anything they ever thought of in glitzy Las Vegas.

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